The border crisis has become a PR issue for Boston-based furniture company Wayfair.
The company was set to supply beds and other furniture pieces to a camp at the southern border that is housing migrant children. These young asylum seekers have entered the national spotlight amid reports of appalling conditions and politicking from presidential hopefuls.
Now, Wayfair’s employees are protesting the company’s involvement with the detention centers, some of which are being run by for-profit enterprises.
Organizing under the newly formed group, Wayfair Walkout, workers are demanding the e-commerce furniture giant cease all current and future business with contractors operating detention centers and establish an ethics code that “empowers employees to act in accordance with Wayfair’s core values.”
The group sent a letter to the company’s leadership last week, signed by 547 employees, calling for the end of operations that furnish detention centers.
“We believe that the current actions of the United States and their contractors at the Southern border do not represent an ethical business partnership Wayfair should choose to be a part of,” the letter said. In the message, employees said the company recently fulfilled an order of bedroom furniture worth $200,000 to be sent to a facility in Texas housing migrant children and operated by BCFS, a nonprofit government contractor that manages detention camps.
“At Wayfair, we believe that ‘everyone should live in a home that they love,’” the employees wrote, citing a company slogan. “Let’s stay true to that message by taking a stand against the reprehensible practice of separating families, which denies them any home at all.”
Wayfair’s leaders tried to calm the waters with a gift to charity.
As backlash emerged online, Wayfair said that it would donate profits from the sale of about $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture to the American Red Cross, coming out to a gift of about $100,000. A spokesperson for the company did not offer additional comment on the protests.
In a letter to employees, Wayfair executives said they “respect the passion of all our employees on this issue” and the donation was “to help those in dire need of basic necessities at the border.”
“We believe strongly in the political process in our country and the power of individuals engaging in it to create change,” according to the letter.
The company seeking to buy the furniture said employee reactions were misguided.
BCFS, a non-profit government contractor who the letter says bought the Wayfair goods for the camps, stood by its involvement in a Tuesday evening email.
“We believe youth should sleep in beds with mattresses,” BCFS Public Information Officer Krista Piferrer said in an emailed statement.
However, the employee group organizing the walkout disagreed with BCFS’ assessment.
When asked about BCFS’s statement, Madeline Howard, who says she’s worked for Wayfair for six and a half years, said that’s not the employees’ position.
“It’s our job to make it as hard as possible for them to operate these camps, and what we’re doing is an attempt to basically throw a wrench into what they’re attempting to do,” she said. “We don’t think the camps should run at all, we don’t think they should exist at all, and this is our way of telling them that.”
The impact of the crisis
Wayfair is uniquely vulnerable to this crisis, given that its customer demographics trend younger and, according to some analysts, “more activist.”
“Once you are in that spotlight, it will have an impact,” Temin said ahead of the protest. “It puts them on the wrong side of their customer base who are generally young and probably a little bit more activist.”
Some customers said online they planned to cancel their Wayfair orders over the issue. The company next reports earnings in late summer, when investors may get a look into whether the online backlash had any tangible effect on sales.
… “I’m sure they would like it to go away; I don’t think it will and now they’re going to stand for something,” Temin said of the retailer. “In this long run up to the general election, everything can become politicized. Corporate actions can become politicized. The corporation has to be aware of this and therefore has to pick its battles very carefully.”
The company has become a political football as politicians on both sides of the aisle try to sway voters using Wayfair’s example.
To keep migrants comfortable while Democrats in Congress dither on humanitarian aid, the Trump Admin bought bedroom furniture from @Wayfair. Sadly, open-border advocates @AOC @RepPressley are bullying Wayfair to cancel the sale, depriving kids of good beds to sleep in. Heartless!
— Trump War Room (@TrumpWarRoom) June 25, 2019
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) June 27, 2019
"The point Wayfair workers are making is that such squalid camps shouldn’t even be there and that their company shouldn’t facilitate their existence—and that as a well-known brand, they can play a role in public outrage over the border policy. "https://t.co/Gt4kRSieRo
— RAICES (@RAICESTEXAS) June 26, 2019
Caught by surprise
By some accounts, Wayfair was caught flatfooted by the crisis over its decision to supply border camps, which have become a divisive issue in the U.S.
Workers began discussing the sale in person and on the company Slack, and by Friday had drafted a petition to management asking that Wayfair “cease all current and future business with BCFS” and “establish a code of ethics” for sales. Some 500 employees signed it that afternoon.
Yesterday, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Steve Conine, convened a staff meeting that one employee described as both “packed” and “cringeworthy.” During the meeting, of which The Atlantic obtained audio recordings, Conine declared that he was “very much against these detention centers,” but also emphasized the company’s “duty not to be a discriminatory business.” He ultimately rejected workers’ demands. As a result, employees declared their intention to walk off the job this afternoon.
Some say the idea that a company can remain apolitical in 2019 is “naïve.”
The Atlantic continued:
Conine’s desire to avoid the fray is understandable, if naive. These are strange times: Socks are political. Outdoor equipment, smutty card games, enterprise software, and the dictionary are political. So is coffee, whether you make it at home or buy it. So is yogurt, in various states of matter. Over the weekend, at the same time Wayfair employees were organizing, the fiber-arts community was embroiled in controversy after the knitting and crocheting forum Ravelry banned content supportive of President Donald Trump, citing his administration’s “open white supremacy”; the site’s leaders told the press they were inspired by hobbyists in a very different corner of the internet—gaming. Hours after Wayfair organizers announced the walkout on Twitter, national political figures including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders had each taken a side, as had Trump’s reelection campaign.
However, other communicators are voicing skepticism about the industry wisdom that companies should speak out on political issues.
A study by Edelman found “nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of consumers around the world now buy on belief, a remarkable increase of 13 points since 2017.” The ensuing narrative has been that “taking a stand is no longer an option for brands.”
In my observation, that stat was widely circulated and cited as a reason for brands to get political. Yet asking people if they buy on belief is not the same thing as asking people if they’d buy from a company with a public position on a political issue with which they disagree. There’s a level of granularity that needs to be explored and that’s why I ran this survey late in 2018 – the aim was to conduct a deeper line of questioning.
Strong says research shows that most consumers want brand managers to stay out of politics.
However, he notes that age makes a big difference in how consumers feel about whether an organization should sound off on controversial issues. Younger audiences were more likely to want a business to take a strong political stance.
For Wayfair, the horses have left the barn, but your organization should consider what values it wants to take a stand on and brainstorm ways to communicate those values to consumers and employees.
What did you think of Wayfair’s crisis response efforts, PR Daily readers?
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